Hindu nationalists continue to oppress Christians in Kandhamal district, report says.
NEW DELHI, November 11 (CDN) — More than two years after losing relatives and property in anti-Christian violence, there is no sense of relief among survivors in India’s Orissa state, as many are still ostracized and pressured to “return” to Hinduism, according to a private investigation.
“Despite the state administration’s claim of normalcy,” the preliminary report of a fact-finding team states, “a state of lawlessness and utter fear and sense of insecurity” prevails among Christians of Kandhamal district, which saw a major anti-Christian bloodbath in 2008.
The team, consisting of local attorney Nicholas Barla and another identified only as Brother Marcus, along with rights activists Jugal Kishore Ranjit and Ajay Kumar Singh, visited four villages in three blocks of Kandhamal on Nov. 5.
In Bodimunda village in Tikabali, the team met a pastor who said he has been closely watched since Hindu extremists forced him to become a Hindu. The pastor, whose name the report withheld for security reasons, said he had to convert to Hinduism in 2008 “to save his old mother, who could not have escaped the violence as she was not in a position to walk.”
He is still closely watched in an effort to prevent him from returning to Christianity. While the attorneys and activists were still at the pastor’s house, a man who identified himself as from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, India’s most influential Hindu nationalist conglomerate) came to inquire about his visitors. The pastor felt compelled to tell them that they were “bank officials.”
In the same village, Hindu nationalists have also imposed a de facto ban on any private or public vehicle to ferry Christians or their belongings, said the report.
The team met the family of a paralyzed Christian, Bamadev Pradhan, whom auto-rickshaw drivers refused to take to a hospital when he recently ran a high fever. Eventually a Christian driver took him to the only hospital in Tikabali, around eight kilometers (nearly five miles) from his village of Bodimunda, but as the Christian was driving back, some local men confiscated his vehicle.
With the help of the auto-rickshaw union, the driver (unnamed in the report) got the vehicle released after paying a fine of 1,051 (US$24) rupees and promising that he would not transport any Christians in the future.
Another Christian said area Hindus extremists prohibited Christians from procuring basic necessities.
“We are not allowed to bring housing materials or food provisions or medicines, and nor are we allowed to buy anything from local shops,” he said. “We do not have any shop of our own. Here, we are struggling to live as human beings.”
The team also met a Hindu who had to pay 5,000 rupees (US$112) to get his tractor returned to him, as he had transported housing material for the construction of the house of a Christian.
In the house of a Christian in Keredi village in Phulbani Block, the team found a picture of a Hindu god. The resident, who was not identified in the report, explained that he had to display it in order to protect his family from harm.
The team found pictures of Hindu gods also in the house of a Christian in Gandapadar village in the Minia area, Phiringia Block. A woman in the house told the team that local Hindu nationalists had given her pictures of Hindu gods for worship.
“We have kept them, as they often come to check whether we have reconverted to Christianity,” she said.
Almost all Christians the team met complained that the local administration had done little to protect them and suspected that officials colluded with area Hindu nationalists.
Released on Nov. 8, the report asserts that Christians have been barred from taking water from a government well in Dakanaju village, under G. Udayagiri police jurisdiction in Tikabali Block. The village head, Sachindra Pradhan, has promised to take action “at the earliest,” it added.
Violence in Kandhamal and some other districts of Orissa state followed the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008. The rampage killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to estimates by human rights groups.
The spate of attacks began a day after Saraswati’s killing when Hindu nationalist groups blamed Christians for his murder, although Maoists (extreme Marxists) active in the district claimed responsibility for it.
John Dayal, a Christian activist in Delhi, told Compass that “the apparatus of 2008 remains undisturbed.” The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was part of the ruling state alliance with the regional Biju Janata Dal (BJD) party at the time of the violence. Although the BJD broke up with the BJP in 2009, blaming it for the violence, the former cannot be excused, said Dayal.
“While the BJP is mainly to be blamed, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is not entirely innocent,” Dayal said. “Not just that he allowed the BJP and RSS cadres to run amok when they were part of his government, turning a blind eye to their very visible anti-Christian activities, but he was his own home [interior] minister and cannot really shirk command responsibility for the carnage together with his BJP ministerial colleagues and senior officers.”
Kandhamal district Magistrate Krishan Kumar, who was on a tour at press time, could not be contacted for comment despite repeated attempts.
Of the 648,201 people in Kandhamal district, 117,950 are Christian, mostly Dalit (formerly “untouchables” in the caste hierarchy in Hindu societies), according to the 2001 Census. Hindus, mainly tribal people and numbering 527,757, form the majority.
Report from Compass Direct News
Stunned Christians suspect bias in case of politician’s role in Orissa violence.
NEW DELHI, July 30 (CDN) — Less than a month after Orissa state legislator Manoj Pradhan was sentenced to seven years of prison for his part in anti-Christian mob violence in 2008, he was released on bail pending his appeal.
Along with fellow Hindu nationalist Prafulla Mallick, Pradhan on June 29 was convicted of causing grievous hurt and rioting in connection with the murder of a Christian, Parikhita Nayak. Justice B.P. Ray heard the petition on July 7, and the same day he granted Pradhan and Mallick bail conditional on posting bail bond of 20,000 rupees (US$430) each.
Pradhan and Mallick were released from jail on July 12 and await the outcome of an appeal to the Orissa High Court.
Attorney Bibhu Dutta Das said that ordinary people don’t get bail so easily when convicted of such crimes, and he questioned how Pradhan could be granted release just for being a legislator.
“It takes years for convictions in High Court,” Das told Compass. “We will not sit silent. We will challenge this bail order in the [New Delhi] Supreme Court very soon.”
The Christian community expressed shock that someone sentenced to seven years in prison would get bail within seven days of applying for it.
“I am very disappointed with the judiciary system,” said Nayak’s widow, Kanaka Rekha Nayak, who along with her two daughters has been forced into hiding because of threats against her. “I went through several life threats, but still I took my daughters for hearings whenever I was called by the court, risking my daughters’ lives – certainly not for this day.”
In addition to the bail, the court has issued a stay order on the 5,000 rupee (US$107) fine imposed on Pradhan and Mallick. Attorney Das told Compass the decision was biased, as the Lower Court Record was not even consulted beforehand.
“This is the normal court procedure, and it was bypassed for Pradhan,” he said. “The judgment was pre-determined.”
Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass, “Sometimes the judicial system seems mockery to me. One court convicts him, and another one grants him bail.”
The rulings are demoralizing to those who look toward the courts for justice, he said.
“There is a very powerful force behind this. It is not as simple as it looks,” Parichha said.
Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, said he was surprised by the orders.
“While it is a legal right for anybody to get bail, it is surprising that Pradhan was wanted in so many cases, and he can coerce and influence witnesses,” Dayal said. “His petition should not have been granted.”
The two Hindu nationalists were convicted by the Phulbani Fast Track Sessions Court I Judge Sobhan Kumar Das. Pradhan, member of the state Legislative Assembly (MLA) from G. Udayagiri, Kandhamal for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), filed a petition stating that his name was not mentioned in the original First Information Report filed by Kanaka Rekha Nayak, but that he was dragged into the case later.
The bail order includes a warning to Pradhan to refrain from intimidating witnesses, stating, “The petitioner shall not threaten the witnesses examined.”
Rekha Nayak, along with her daughters Lipsa Nayak (4 years old when her father was killed) and Amisha Nayak (then 2 years old) were eyewitnesses to the murder of her 31-year-old husband, a Dalit Christian from Tiangia, Budedipada, in Kandhamal district. He was murdered on Aug. 27, 2008.
Rev. Dr. Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, urged the Christian community to keep hope.
“The case is still on, not that it has come to an end,” he said. “There is a move that is being made to take the case further.”
Attorney Das has said he plans to appeal Pradhan’s sentence of seven years, in hopes of increasing it to life imprisonment.
Pradhan, who denies any wrongdoing, has been charged in 14 cases related to the August-September 2008 anti-Christian attacks. In seven of the cases he has been acquitted, he was convicted of “grievous hurt” in the Nayak case, and six more are pending against him.
Of the 14 cases in which he faces charges, seven involve murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.
Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.
Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.
The Times of India reported Pradhan as “one of the close disciples” of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) leader Swami Laxamananda Saraswati, whose assassination on Aug. 23, 2008, touched off the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa.
Rekha Nayak filed a complaint and a case was registered against Mallick and others for murder, destroying evidence, rioting and unlawful assembly. Pradhan was arrested on Oct. 16, 2008, from Berhampur, and in December 2009 he obtained bail from the Orissa High Court.
Despite his role in the attacks, Pradhan – campaigning from jail – was the only BJP candidate elected from the G. Udayagiri constituency in the 2009 Assembly elections from Kandhamal district.
In recent court actions, Fast Track Court-II Additional Sessions Judge Chittaranjan Das on July 21 acquitted nine persons who had been arrested in the Tikabali area for various offenses, including arson, due to “lack of evidence.” The main charge against them was torching of a church on Aug. 28, 2008 at Beladevi village.
At least 132 persons have been convicted in different cases related to the 2008 violence in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, state Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said on July 19. Patnaik said that 24 members of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal (Youth Wing of World Hindu Council) and VHP have been arrested and jailed.
Revenue and Disaster Management minister S.N. Patro said on July 21 that the 55 Christian places of worship were damaged in Tikabali block; 44 in G. Udaygiri; 39 in Raikia; 34 in K. Nuagaon; 19 in Baliguda; 16 in Daringbadi; nine in Phulbani; six in Kotgarh; five in Tumudibandha; and one each in Phiringia and Chakapada blocks.
India Briefs: Recent Incidents of Persecution
Karnataka – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh accused a pastor in Aldur of forceful conversion on July 24 and threatened him, telling him not to preach about Jesus. The All India Christian Council reported that the extremists filed a police complaint against Pastor Anand Kumar of forceful conversion. Both police and extremists ordered Pastor Kumar to remove the cross and name plate of the church. At press time area Christians were taking steps to resolve the issue.
Jammu and Kashmir – The state’s Foreigners Registration Officer reportedly issued a notice to a senior Christian worker to leave India by July 20 after a false complaint of forceful conversion was filed against him. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the state succumbed to pressure by Muslim extremists to deport Father Jim Borst, who has run Good Shepherd School in the Kashmir Valley since 1963. The school has been attacked on two occasions by members of other schools who felt they were unable to compete with it. For eight years these groups have led a campaign against Borst, claiming he was forcibly converting people under the guise of providing education. Borst, who denies the charge, has a valid visa till 2014. The interior minister reportedly said he had no knowledge of the deportation order, and Borst’s superiors indicated he would not leave.
Madhya Pradesh – Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists on July 18 disrupted Christian worship in Barwaha, near Indore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Pastor Subash Chouhan of the Indian Evangelical Team was leading Sunday worship when the extremists stormed in on the terrified Christians. They accused Pastor Chouhan of forceful conversion, photographed the congregation and told the pastor to close his tailoring school, which includes non-Christian students. This is the second time Pastor Chouhan has been arrested on false charges of forceful conversion; previously he was jailed for three days. The case was pending at press time.
Punjab – Police arrested Christians on July 10 after Hindu nationalists beat them, falsely accusing them of forcible conversion in Gurdaspur. Members of the Indian Pentecostal Church of God (IPCG) Western Region were visiting houses in the area on a social outreach mission when a group of extremists began to argue with them and then started beating four of them with their fists and shoes. Later they handed the Christians over to police, along with three more Christian men and five Christian women, complaining that they were converting people from the Hindu religion. Pastor Promod Samuel, along with the IPCG head A.M. Samuel, rushed to the Gurdaspur City police station to help the Christians, but officers detained them as well. Samuel told Compass that the president of the Hindu extremist groups Shiva Sena and Bajrang Dal, as well as many other Hindu nationalist leaders, gathered at the police station clamoring for officers to file charges against the 14 Christians. Hearing of the arrests, Christian leaders of Gurdaspur requested their release. The Christians were not released until Samuel signed an agreement assuring that Christians would not enter any non-Christian home. “The extremists are continuously following us around, to keep a check on us.” Samuel said.
Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists toppled a church building and attacked Christians on July 6 in Parawada, Visakhapatnam. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that local Hindu extremists were jealous and angry that a church stood at the entrance of the village and urged the Christians to move. The extremists threatened to attack the Christian community, claiming that they would allow no church in the area. When the church pastor refused to give in to their demand, they began damaging his household goods and pulled down the church building. The extremists also stopped the Christians from drawing water from a well. AICC was taking steps to resolve the matter at press time.
Madhya Pradesh – Police on July 4 arrested and charged two Christians under the state’s controversial “anti-conversion” law at Jawahar Nadar, Adharthal. According to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), a member of the Apostolic Christian Assembly, Shravan Kuman Dubey, invited Vishal Lal to lead a prayer service for his 6-year-old son Ravi’s birthday. Around 7:30 p.m., during prayer, a mob of nearly 75 Hindu nationalist extremists accompanied by police entered the house and falsely accused those present of forced conversion, taking 14 Christians to the Adhartal police station. After nearly four hours, police charged Shravan Kumar and Vishal Lal with forcible conversion and sent the others home. With GCIC intervention, both were released on bail the next day.
Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists belonging to the Dharma Raksha Samithi (Religion Protection Council) on June 28 stopped a Christian school bus and questioned young elementary students in Indore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the bus was carrying Christian students from Orissa to their school in Indore. The extremists ordered the young students to get out of the bus and asked them whether forceful conversion was taking place, frightening the schoolchildren as police remained mere spectators. After threatening to harm the Christians if they carried out any Christian activities, they let them go. Area Christian leaders condemned the incident as a sign of Hindu extremists’ “reign of terror” in the state and demanded an investigation.
Karnataka – On June 13 in Anekal, Bangalore, Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh beat a pastor whom they accused of forceful conversion. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that, in an apparently premeditated attack, an unidentified extremist telephoned Pastor Sam Joseph to come and pray for a sick person. The pastor agreed, only to be taken to a gathering of Hindu extremists with media people. The extremists accused the pastor of forceful conversion, beat him up and dragged him to Hebbagudi police station. Police released the pastor without charges after forcing him to agree that he would no longer lead Christian meetings.
Himachal Pradesh – State officials on June 5 sealed a Mission India building, claiming that it belongs to “outsiders,” in Bari, Mandi district. The Evangelical Fellowship of India’s (EFI) advocacy desk reported that the government closed the building, which functioned as a Bible study center and orphanage, claiming that no land in the area could be owned by non-native people. Pastor Sam Abraham told Compass that Mission India purchased the plot in 2005, constructed a building in 2007 and began using it as a Bible study center and orphanage in 2008. In July 2008, Hindu extremists filed a complaint against Mission India of forceful conversion and demanded the building be shut down. The extremists have since accused the Christians of forceful conversion, verbally abused them for their faith and threatened to kill them if they did not leave. Mission India officials asserted that the land legally belongs to them and that they have all necessary documents. At press time the Christians were looking for a place to rent that would accommodate at least 10 orphans.
Report from Compass Direct News
Attacks in Kano state said to stem from hostility by converts to Islam, land dispute.
LAGOS, Nigeria, May 21 (CDN) — Scores of Muslim youths on Wednesday (May 19) besieged church property in Kano state in northern Nigeria, destroying two church buildings and a pastor’s residence.
One of the buildings and the pastor’s house were set ablaze on the premises of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) at Kwasam, in the Kiru Local Government Area, while another building under construction was demolished. Youths reportedly numbering more than 100 in the predominantly Muslim area stormed the church grounds.
“The problem started when some Christian youths of ECWA church were converted to Islam,” the Rev. Lado Abdul, chairman of ECWA district in Kano, told Compass. “They swore that the ECWA church would not remain in the area, as they would do everything possible to chase Christians out from Kiru.”
The ECWA pastor whose house was demolished, Gambo Mato, has found shelter in another Christian’s home.
No life was lost during or after the incident as police and State Security Service officers intervened, and traditional rulers, religious leaders and government officials held an urgent meeting to quell potential skirmishes and establish security.
Abdul, however, lamented the denial of rights to Christians in Kano by area Muslims.
“Here in Kano, nobody gives you land to build a church,” he said. “The old churches built before now are being demolished for reasons no one can easily grasp. We have taken our complaint to Sarki Kano [traditional emir of Kano] Alhaji Ado Bayero, and he assured us that something would be done about it. We are looking to the state government to come to our rescue.”
Kano State Police Commissioner Mohammed Gana said that the attack on the church buildings grew out of a land dispute.
“The old church was a mud house, and the ECWA people wanted to rebuild it with blocks,” Gana said. “In the process, there was a disagreement, but we moved in to ensure peace and order.”
Four suspects have been arrested, and an investigation continues, the police chief said.
Elsewhere in Kano state, in Banaka of the Takai Local Government Area, a Baptist church was reportedly demolished on Saturday (May 15).
Kano state, one of 12 states in Nigeria where sharia (Islamic law) is in effect, has been the site of periodic Islamic aggression against the minority Christian community. Last year, when an Islamic extremist sect known as Boko Haram instigated rioting in Bauchi state that killed at least 12 Christians, the firestorm of violence spread to Kano state as well as Borno and Yobe states.
In 2008, hundreds of Muslims took to the streets of Kano city on April 20, attacking Christians and their shops and setting vehicles on fire based on claims that a Christian had blasphemed Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Thousands of Christians were trapped in church buildings until police could disperse the assailants.
An unidentified Christian was said to have written an inscription on a shop wall that disparaged the prophet of Islam. Muslims at a market in the Sabon Garia area of the city reportedly attacked the Christian, whom police rescued and took to the area police station.
Muslims in large numbers soon trooped to the police station, threatening to set it ablaze unless officers released the Christian to be stoned to death in accordance with sharia, sources said.
Report from Compass Direct News
Seminarians resist eviction from former municipal building as they await decent relocation.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 1 (CDN) — Some 1,000 seminary students are resisting efforts to evict them from the former municipal building of West Jakarta where they have taken refuge after Muslim protestors drove them from their campus last year.
On Oct. 27 officials began evicting about 300 students of Arastamar Evangelical Theological Seminary (SETIA) from blocks I and II of the former mayoral building, but those in blocks III, IV, and V chose to remain.
The students, some of whom had sown their mouths shut as part of a hunger strike, asserted that new quarters offered by the Jakarta Provincial Government are not yet fit for occupancy – dirty and unkempt with broken windows and doors. They said the property offered, the North Jakarta Transmigrant building, has not functioned since 1999, and its five buildings accommodate only 200 to 300 students.
The seminary students told Compass that unidentified mobs have threatened them, telling them to leave the former municipal complex immediately.
“They threaten us and tell us that if we do not move, our safety cannot be guaranteed,” said SETIA’s Yulius Thomas Bilo.
The Rev. Matheus Mangentang, rector of SETIA, confirmed that the threats had been made. Asked about the identity of the mobs, he said he knew only that they appeared daily to intimidate and threaten students.
“We are going to move as soon as possible – Dec. 31 at the latest,” Mangentang said. “If we don’t, the place is no longer safe.”
He added, however, that they would not move until their new location was clear.
“We have not wavered in our desire to return to our own place, because we actually have our own campus in Kampung Pulo, East Jakarta,” Mangentang told Compass.
The Jakarta Provincial Government has not allowed the students and staff to return to their campus, citing fear of more violence.
“It is not permissible for them to return to Kampung Pulo; conditions are not conducive,” the Jakarta area secretary who goes by a single name, Muhayat, told Compass.
In July 2008 hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village. Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor” following a misunderstanding between students and local residents, the protestors also had sharpened bamboo and acid and injured at least 20 students, some seriously.
Water and Electricity Crisis
Conditions for the 1,000 students living in the former West Jakarta mayor’s complex are worsening.
“Since the end of October, we have had no electricity and no water,” said Alexander Dimu, head of the student senate. “We have to depend upon our own resources and donations to buy water. We need about US$100 per day for water.”
Compass noted hundreds of students lined up to obtain water for bathing and drinking. They used old buckets to carry water to the bathrooms, which were badly in need of repair.
As a result of such living conditions, many students have diarrhea and hemorrhagic fever.
“So far, six have fever and 17 have diarrhea,” Dimu told Compass. “Those who are ill have been taken to a nearby hospital.”
A number of students have quit school, according to Mangentang, as their parents were worried about the health conditions. The average SETIA student is from outside Jakarta. They come from Nias Island, East Indonesia, Borneo and other areas. Their families are largely farmers.
“The parents have millions of expectations as to how they can help the children of their home villages after graduation,” said Mangentang.
The ultimate destination of the students is still unclear. The Jakarta Provincial Government has stood firm in ordering them to move to Cikarang, West Java, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Jakarta. At the same time, the SETIA Foundation has requested the government find a new campus venue within Jakarta to avoid the difficult process of obtaining permits in the new provincial jurisdiction of West Java.
After SETIA staff and students met on Nov. 16 with several members of Parliament at the former mayoral office, the MPs led by Education Committee Vice Chairman Heri Ahmadi promised to ask Jakarta Gov. Fauzi Bowo to return them to their campus at Kampung Pulo with the necessary security.
Mangentang said that he was still waiting for the members of Parliament to make good on that pledge.
The visit by the parliamentarians brought an end to a hunger strike by five students who had sewn their mouths shut at the former mayoral complex on Nov. 9. They were identified only as Yanisar, Leonardo, Mutari, Demas and Epy. That act followed a protest by the student council from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3.
Two units of heavy machinery had begun tearing down part of the main building where the 1,000 students are housed. Some of the students staying there were previously evicted from the Bumi Perkemahan Cibubur (BUPERTA) campground.
SETIA spokesman Yusup Agustinus Lifire told Compass the seminary is awaiting word from the Jakarta governor’s office about their returning to their campus at Kampung Pulo.
“We submitted an official letter to the governor, the police chief of Greater Jakarta and the military chief of Greater Jakarta on Oct. 28, but so far there is not any reply for us,” Lifire said. “We would like to leave this building if we could find a new place. It is not certain if the students began to attack and throw stones at police officers on Oct. 27-28 when they began demolishing one of the buildings. There were some provocateurs who started to throw some stones at police officers, then the officers threw the stones at the students and vice versa.”
Lifire also said the Jakarta governor’s office should take responsibility for the crisis. SETIA has asked the governor to guarantee security for a return to their original campus or else prepare or provide a new venue, he said.
A female student of Christian Education said there is a banner at the original campus that reads in Bahasa, “If you dare to return, we will wipe you out.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Alarmed by threatening strangers, wife and children of William Reyes leave Maicao.
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, June 24 (Compass Direct News) – The wife and children of pastor William Reyes, who was kidnapped last September in Colombia and is still missing, have moved from their home to another city due to threatening strangers presumably linked to his kidnappers.
Compass learned that Idia Miranda Reyes, her son William, 19, and daughters Luz Nelly, 17, and Estefania, 9, suddenly left their home in Maicao in the department (state) of La Guajira two months ago and moved to an undisclosed location in the country.
The Rev. William Reyes disappeared on Sept. 25, 2008, en route to Maicao from the neighboring city of Valledupar. Since March 2008, the pastor of Light and Truth Inter-American Church and active member of the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors of Maicao, had been receiving extortion threats from illegal armed groups operating in the La Guajira peninsula.
Family members have not heard from Pastor Reyes since, nor have his abductors contacted the family to demand ransom.
Two incidents earlier this year alerted his wife that she and her children were in danger from the kidnappers. On Jan. 15, an unidentified man appeared at the Inter-American Church in Maicao and asked for Idia Miranda Reyes. When he was told she was not there, the man asked for her address and cell phone number, which church workers refused to give him.
Before he left, the man said testily, “It is in [her] best interest to get in touch with me, than for me to have to find her.”
Six days later, Luz Nelly Reyes was approached by a stranger on the street (the family believes it was the same man), who told her that if she wanted to see her father again, she should come with him. The girl declined the invitation. When he attempted to grab her by the arm, Luz Nelly fled.
“I have not reported this to police, because I’m afraid,” her mother told Compass after the incident. “They could do something to me.”
Through sobs she added, “We never conceived of this happening to us. I just wish they would tell us if they have him or not.”
Idia Miranda Reyes waited to leave Maicao until Luz Nelly completed her senior year in high school; the 17-year-old graduated on March 28. According to sources, the Inter-American church is contributing a modest living allowance to the Reyes family.
Reyes is not alone in her fears; Colombia suffers the highest incidence of kidnapping in the Western Hemisphere and a homicide rate 11 times greater than in the United States.
Due to general lawlessness, Colombians often face harassment from the same criminals who kidnap or murder loved ones. Violent crime is so common in the country that half of the felonies are not reported to police, and only one in nine makes the newspapers.
Another Maicao kidnapping in February underscores the problem. Armed men abducted a woman from a church just a few blocks from the Light and Truth church – while worship was in progress. The pastor of that church later refused to disclose the victim’s identity or discuss the circumstances of her disappearance, citing concerns for the safety of his congregation.
Evangelical Christians are not always passive victims of crime, however. Justapaz, a Mennonite Church-affiliated organization based in Bogotá, and The Commission for Restoration, Life and Peace of the Evangelical Council of Churches of Colombia (CEDECOL) have organized an international prayer and action campaign in response to the Reyes family crisis.
The campaign mobilized concerned citizens to petition the office of Attorney General Dr. Mario Iguarán, asking that authorities conduct a thorough investigation into Pastor Reyes’ disappearance and report their findings to Commission Coordinator Ricardo Esquivia and Jenny Neme, director of Justapaz.
“Despite hundreds of letters from church members in the United States, Canada and across Europe, and repeated attempts to get a response from the Colombian Attorney General´s Office, we have yet to receive any information from them regarding progress in the case,” said Michael Joseph, who coordinates the Reyes case on behalf of CEDECOL and Justapaz. “We’re doing our best to make sure Pastor Reyes’ case is not forgotten.”
The Reyes family joins other “internal refugees” who live as exiles in their own country. Unchecked political and social violence have forced innocent victims – many of them widows and children – to abruptly abandon homes and careers. They must take up life in crowded, far-off cities in order to protect themselves and their children from further attack.
According to estimates, Colombia now has 3 million internal refugees, the second largest population of displaced persons in the world after Sudan.
Report from Compass Direct News
‘Convert or die’ threats prevent Christian families from returning to home villages.
NEW DELHI, February 18 (Compass Direct News) – In the wake of anti-Christian violence in Orissa state last year, hard-line Hindus in Kandhamal district have forced nearly half of 40 Christian families in one village to convert under threat of death, area Christians said.
Bareka village resident Goliath Digal, 58, told Compass that the Hindu hardliners have taken 18 Roman Catholic families to a Hindu temple and performed Hindu rituals on them, forcing them to sign statements that they had converted of their own will.
“During the riots, all our belongings had been taken away and we were left with nothing,” Digal said. “Now they are threatening to murder us if we do not become Hindus.”
Of the 22 other families in Bareka, 16 have returned to the village from relief camps but are living in fear, Digal said, and the rest have fled to Berampur, Jharsuguda and to nearby villages with no plans to return. He added that he and others with farmland near the village have not been able to cultivate crops out of fear and opposition.
Fear of Return
In G. Udayagiri refugee camp, 55-year-old Vipin Nayak of Tiangia Budaripura village said that all 400 Christian families from the hamlet have remained in the camp except for five families who were allowed to return after being forced to become Hindus.
“We cannot enter the village until we become Hindus – if we do return, we risk our lives,” said Nayak, whose brother, Vikram Nayak, was killed in the anti-Christian violence that lasted for more than two months.
The Hindu hardliners have ordered the Christians to enter the village carrying Hindu scripture, the Bhagwat Geeta, in their hands if they want to return to the village, he said. Many Christians have tried to sneak into the village and were kidnapped and had their heads tonsured, Nayak said.
In Tikabali relief camp, 20-year-old Geetanjali Digal told Compass that Hindu extremists are telling villagers, “Once again we will attack, and riots will take place. We burned your houses, this time we will kill you all. Nobody will be left alive.”
Another source told Compass that one of the most dangerous hamlets is Badimunda. “Christians cannot step into the village at all,” said the source.
Prabhasini Nayak, a 20-year-old Christian resident of Kakamaha village, Panganaju, who remains in G. Udayagiri relief camp, said Hindus have threatened to impose monetary punishment on her Hindu uncle and his family if they make contact with her and Christian members of her family.
“The fundamentalists have threatened my uncle’s family to have no ties with us,” she said. “If they are found doing so, they will have to pay a fine of 5,000 rupees [US$100] to the fundamentalists.”
Peace Committees Fail
The district collector of Kandhamal, Dr. Krishna Kumar, said his office has received 68 to 70 complaints of forcible conversion of Christians to Hinduism, “and in all such cases police complaints have been registered and action is being taken.”
Christian leaders from Kandhamal said the government has set up meetings of “Peace Committees” to aid refugee camp dwellers to return to their home villages, but in many places the presiding officials failed to show up.
Kumar, however, told Compass that reconciliation has begun in various places. “Peace Committees have been very successful,” he said.
Area Christian leaders maintained that the Peace Committees will help little as there is almost no willingness by hard-line Hindus to tolerate Christian presence.
“‘Only Hindus and no Christians’ is the new slogan of Hindu fundamentalists in the area,” said one pastor on condition of anonymity. “Christians have to become Hindus or leave.”
Last month, India’s Supreme Court ordered the Orissa state government, led by an alliance that includes the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to ensure protection for the state’s Christian minority.
The violence last year resulted from Hindu extremist organizations blaming Christians for the murder of Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23. Police, however, have charged Maoist extremists for the killings. A Communist Party fact-finding team estimated at least 500 people were murdered. More than 50,000 people were left homeless as some 5,000 houses were burned or destroyed, and 252 churches were destroyed.
Dr. Kumar said that smaller, transitional relief camps have been established in various blocks of the district, closer to villages, so that in time residents might be emboldened to venture freely back to their homes.
Asserting that only 1,500 people are left in refugee camps, Dr. Kumar said that 75 percent of those who fled have returned to their villages.
But Christian leaders from the district said that people who have left relief camps have not returned to their villages but migrated to safer places, especially the larger cities of Berhampur, Cuttack and Bhubaneshwar. They estimated that most are working as day-laborers and are not earning enough to survive.
Geetanjali Digal of the Tikabali relief camp told Compass that the camp still provides a key source of food.
“They have burnt our house,” Digal said. “All that we had is burnt. We have put a small tent in the place of our house that was burnt, but for food we go to the camp. My father is unable to get any work.”
Prabhasini Nayak of G. Udayagiri refugee camp said many people in the camps are eagerly awaiting government compensation to rebuild their homes so that they can start life anew.
“We are one of them,” she said.
Report from Compass Direct News